In rhetoric , parrhesia is a figure of speech described as: "to speak candidly or to ask forgiveness for so speaking". Parrhesia is a noun, meaning "free speech". Parrhesiazomai is a verb, meaning "to use parrhesia". Parrhesiastes is a noun, meaning one who uses parrhesia, for example "one who speaks the truth to power". In ancient Greece, rhetoric and parrhesia were understood to be in opposition to each other through the dialogues written by Plato.
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Little distinguishes democracy in America more sharply from Europe than the primacy—and permissiveness—of our commitment to free speech. Yet ongoing controversies at American universities suggest that free speech is becoming a partisan issue. While conservative students defend the importance of inviting controversial speakers to campus and giving offense, many self-identified liberals are engaged in increasingly disruptive, even violent, efforts to shut them down.
Free speech for some, they argue, serves only to silence and exclude others. The reason that appeals to the First Amendment cannot decide these campus controversies is because there is a more fundamental conflict between two, very different concepts of free speech at stake.
The conflict between what the ancient Greeks called isegoria , on the one hand, and parrhesia , on the other, is as old as democracy itself. In ancient Athens, isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly; parrhesia , the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.
When it comes to private universities, businesses, or social media, the would-be censors are our fellow-citizens, not the state. Private entities like Facebook or Twitter, not to mention Yale or Middlebury, have broad rights to regulate and exclude the speech of their members. Likewise, online mobs are made up of outraged individuals exercising their own right to speak freely.
The two ancient concepts of free speech came to shape our modern liberal democratic notions in fascinating and forgotten ways. But more importantly, understanding that there is not one, but two concepts of freedom of speech, and that these are often in tension if not outright conflict, helps explain the frustrating shape of contemporary debates, both in the U.
Of the two ancient concepts of free speech, isegoria is the older. The term dates back to the fifth century BCE, although historians disagree as to when the democratic practice of permitting any citizen who wanted to address the assembly actually began.
In the democracy of Athens, this idea of addressing an informal gathering in the agora carried over into the more formal setting of the ekklesia or political assembly. In theory, isegoria meant that any Athenian citizen in good standing had the right to participate in debate and try to persuade his fellow citizens. In practice, the number of participants was fairly small, limited to the practiced rhetoricians and elder statesmen seated near the front.
Disqualifying offenses included prostitution and taking bribes. Although Athens was not the only democracy in the ancient world, from the beginning the Athenian principle of isegoria was seen as something special.
The historian Herodotus even described the form of government at Athens not as demokratia , but as isegoria itself. According to the fourth-century orator and patriot Demosthenes, the Athenian constitution was based on speeches politeia en logois and its citizens had chosen isegoria as a way of life.
But for its critics, this was a bug, as well as a feature. Critics like the Old Oligarch may have been exaggerating for comic effect, but they also had a point: as its etymology suggests, isegoria was fundamentally about equality, not freedom.
As such, it would become the hallmark of Athenian democracy, which distinguished itself from the other Greek city-states not because it excluded slaves and women from citizenship as did every society in the history of humankind until quite recently , but rather because it included the poor. Athens even took positive steps to render this equality of public speech effective by introducing pay for the poorest citizens to attend the assembly and to serve as jurors in the courts.
As a form of free speech then, isegoria was essentially political. Its competitor, parrhesia , was more expansive. Parrhesia could have a political aspect.
Demosthenes and other orators stressed the duty of those exercising isegoria in the assembly to speak their minds. But the concept applied more often outside of the ekklesia in more and less informal settings.
In the theater, parrhesiastic playwrights like Aristophanes offended all and sundry by skewering their fellow citizens, including Socrates, by name. Among these was Diogenes the Cynic , who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light—all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.
If isegoria was fundamentally about equality, then, parrhesia was about liberty in the sense of license —not a right, but rather an unstable privilege enjoyed at the pleasure of the powerful. Plato no doubt would have noticed that, despite their differences, neither concept relied upon the most famous and distinctively Greek understanding of speech as logos —that is, reason or logical argument. And yet neither isegoria nor parrhesia identified the reasoned speech and arguments of logos as uniquely deserving of equal liberty or license.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, parrhesia survived the demise of Athenian democracy more easily than isegoria. As Greek democratic institutions were crushed by the Macedonian empire, then the Roman, parrhesia persisted as a rhetorical trope. A thousand years after the fall of Rome, Renaissance humanists would revive parrhesia as the distinctive virtue of the counselor speaking to a powerful prince in need of frank advice.
While often couched in apologetics, this parrhesia retained its capacity to shock. Still, there was another adaptation of the parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power available to early modern Europeans. Isegoria , too, had its early modern inheritors. But in the absence of democratic institutions like the Athenian ekklesia , it necessarily took a different form. For the many who lacked access to formal political participation, the idea of isegoria as an equal right of public speech belonging to all citizens would eventually migrate from the concrete public forum to the virtual public sphere.
While the equal liberty of isegoria remained essential for these thinkers, they shifted focus from actual speech —that is, the physical act of addressing others and participating in debate—to the mental exercise of reason and the exchange of ideas and arguments, very often in print. And so, over the course of two millennia, the Enlightenment finally united isegoria and logos in an idealized concept of free speech as freedom only for reasoned speech and rational deliberation that would have made Plato proud.
This logo-centric Enlightenment ideal remains central to the European understanding of free speech today. The same could never be said of ancient or early modern parrhesia , which was always threatening to speakers and listeners alike.
American exceptionalism can thus be traced all the way back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: while America got the evangelicals and libertines, Europe kept the philosophers. Debates about free speech on American campuses today suggest that the rival concepts of isegoria and parrhesia are alive and well. When student protesters claim that they are silencing certain voices—via no-platforming, social pressure, or outright censorship—in the name of free speech itself, it may be tempting to dismiss them as insincere, or at best confused.
While trigger warnings, safe spaces, and no-platforming grab headlines, poll after poll suggests that a more subtle, shift in mores is afoot. Most of these students do not see themselves as standing against free speech at all. What they care about is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged.
It suggests that to defeat the modern proponents of isegoria— and remind the modern parrhesiastes what they are fighting for—one must go beyond the First Amendment to the other, orienting principle of American democracy behind it, namely equality.
It does so because the alternative is to allow the powers-that-happen-to-be to grant that liberty as a license to some individuals while denying it to others. In contexts where the Constitution does not apply, like a private university, this opposition to arbitrariness is a matter of culture, not law, but it is no less pressing and important for that.
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The Two Clashing Meanings of 'Free Speech'
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In both cases we are dealing with lecture notes taken by students and not approved for publication by their respective authors. A bibliography had been added and a certain amount of critical editing done to render a more useful and readable text. The assumption is that these are already part of the public intellectual domain. Foucault never objected to his lectures being recorded. If Foucault insists that truth has long been his interest, it is not the epistemological question that concerns him. On his analysis, it is closely linked to relations of power and the constitution of the subject.
13/13 | The Courage of Truth
Little distinguishes democracy in America more sharply from Europe than the primacy—and permissiveness—of our commitment to free speech. Yet ongoing controversies at American universities suggest that free speech is becoming a partisan issue. While conservative students defend the importance of inviting controversial speakers to campus and giving offense, many self-identified liberals are engaged in increasingly disruptive, even violent, efforts to shut them down. Free speech for some, they argue, serves only to silence and exclude others. The reason that appeals to the First Amendment cannot decide these campus controversies is because there is a more fundamental conflict between two, very different concepts of free speech at stake. The conflict between what the ancient Greeks called isegoria , on the one hand, and parrhesia , on the other, is as old as democracy itself. In ancient Athens, isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly; parrhesia , the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.
Foucault's "fearless speech" and the transformation and mentoring of medical students
But it can also still be found in the patristic texts written at the end of the Fourth and during the Fifth Century AD , dozens of times, for instance, in Jean Chrisostome [ AD ]. The one who uses parrhesia, the parrhesiastes, is someone who says everything he has in mind: he does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse. In parrhesia, the speaker is supposed to give a complete and exact account of what he has in mind so that the audience is able to comprehend exactly what the speaker thinks. For in parrhesia, the speaker makes it manifestly clear and obvious that what he says is his own opinion. And he does this by avoiding any kind of rhetorical form which would veil what he thinks. If we distinguish between the speaking subject the subject of the enunciation and the grammatical subject of the enounced, we could say that there is also the subject of the enunciandum — which refers to the held belief or opinion of the speaker.